Are you looking for a low-risk therapy to help you manage intense feelings? Then you may want to try the holotropic breathing technique which is a powerful, natural breathwork practice used by mental health professionals.
Interested? Then keep reading this simple beginner’s guide to knowing the basics about this practice and how it is performed safely and effectively in therapy sessions!
What is Holotropic Breathing?
The holotropic breathwork technique is experiential psychotherapy intended to help you access an altered state of consciousness that will eventually lead to emotional healing and personal growth.
To achieve the altered states, a person has to increase the pace of his breaths for minutes to hours, guided by a trained facilitator. This process then creates changes in the balance between the body’s carbon dioxide and oxygen.
Elements such as breathwork routine, art, music, bodywork, and talking are incorporated as well during the session to aid in releasing blocked energies and elicit emotional catharsis.
Holotropic Breathwork Name Meaning
Holotropic came from two Greek words “holos” (whole) and “trepein” (to move toward) which can be translated to “moving toward wholeness.”
This practice encourages empowerment by allowing the participants to search for healing from within.
History of Therapeutic Breathing Practice
In the 1970s, psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof developed this experiential approach after the use of LSD became illegal in the late 1960s. The Grofs are known for their early studies about the therapeutic components of LSD which is why they wanted to replicate and achieve a psychedelic-like state without actually using psychedelics.
The couple was influenced by native breathing techniques from other cultures like the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese; as well as spiritual wisdom from Christianity, Buddhism, and other religious breathing practices.
Levels of Consciousness
Trained in Freudian psychoanalytic therapy, Stanislav Grof was interested in exploring the deep state of consciousness in order to bring healing which is why he identified three levels of consciousness:
- Biograhical level: This level includes past events of emotional, physical, and cognitive experience, either consciously or unconsciously.
- Perinatal level: The mother’s psychological and emotional experiences during the stages of the birth process can have an effect to the child’s psyche. This level serves as the bridge between the biological and transpersonal level.
- Transpersonal level: Just like in transpersonal psychology, this refers to the expanding of consciousness beyond the ego and the bounds of space and time (ex. past life experience) which is an experience that crosses into realms of the unconscious.
What Happens in Holotropic Breathwork Sessions?
There is a lot of mystery and misconception around what happens in a holotropic breathwork session which is often considered to be spiritual or therapeutic experiences that can lead to profound personal insights and internal spiritual exploration.
During the session, people breathe rapidly and deeply, sometimes hyperventilating. This causes a release of endorphins, which can produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. However, the effects and what actually happens after may vary depending on the person’s individual experience.
The experience can be euphoric or disturbing, depending on the person’s emotional state and life experiences. Some people may feel a release of intense emotions, while others may have a more visual or auditory experience.
To give you an idea, below is what Holotropic Breathwork may look like in usual sessions:
1. Starting holotropic breathwork
Holotropic breathwork can be performed in either individual sessions or in a group setting.
In groups, they are generally divided into pairs where one person is the observer (sitter) while the other is the one performing holotropic breathwork (breather). After the first breather is done, they will alternate roles until the session is completed.
The session’s length can vary considerably and usually lasts between two to three hours. The focus of the breather is to have a self-exploration of their altered states and guide their own experience as well.
On the other hand, the sitter encourages the breather to act independently and in a spontaneous way.
2. Listening to rhythmic music
Intense expressive music is played once the breathwork routine is established. The music is then combined with quick, deep breaths in order to induce a state of trance that makes it possible to go through various mental states.
The session may start with upbeat music and progress to more intense rhythms as it progresses. The music may be cycled through five different styles over the course of the session:
- Opening music
- Trance-inducing music
- Breakthrough music
- Heart music
- Meditative music
Songs that utilize words shouldn’t be played in a language unfamiliar to the participant, to give them a chance to internalize it.
Lastly, since the correct music orders have been set out, the goal is to be sensitive to the participant’s environment and play the music that is most supportive at the moment.
3. Experiencing possible physical reactions
During the holotropic breathwork session, there are other participants who experienced strong physical responses from their bodies.
Due to reduced carbon dioxide caused by fast breathing, some may initially hyperventilate which then leads to tensions or spasms. Eventually, the spasms will go away and lead to feelings of deep relaxation.
The reaction may differ for each participant, depending on their emotional state. Some other possible physical reactions include:
- Muscle contractions
In cases where deep relaxation is not achieved, the sitter may ask the breather to focus on the areas where the breather feels tensions and ask them to intensify their physical sensations.
Breathers also have the ability to release the energy associated with difficult memories in unusual ways such as:
- Acting like a child or an animal
- Talking in foreign or gibberish language
The sitter should fully support such behavior until they both agree that the session has reached an end and the breather has returned to his or her usual self.
4. Drawing mandalas
Following the holotropic breathwork practice, participants are asked to reflect on their experience by drawing a large circle and filling it in. Mandala art is believed to promote the integration of your conscious and unconscious and entails deep reflection.
After drawing, the participants share their experiences where the facilitator doesn’t interpret them. Instead, questions are asked to help them gain self-awareness and a deeper understanding of themselves.
What Does Holotropic Feels Like?
People often ask what does holotropic breathwork feels like? This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the person and the experience.
Some people describe it as an intense physical and emotional experience, while others say it’s a deeply spiritual journey. Generally speaking, holotropic breathwork is a very intense process that can evoke a wide range of emotions and sensations.
A 2007 study showed that combining non-ordinary states of mind caused by hyperventilation and the supportive environment of a holotropic session could produce cognitive and physical changes in the brain similar to certain drugs and those who exercise and meditate.
During the state of hyperventilation, the brain activity in the frontal lobes temporarily reduces those functions involved in selective inhibition and control in cognition and behavior.
The findings suggest that this state in a holotropic breathing session aids in the release of psychological inhibition (the brain reacts less emotionally), allowing suppressed feelings to be released and processed differently compared to the original traumatic event.
Therapeutic Benefits of Holotropic Breathing
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of people who are using holistic remedies to treat various illnesses and mental health conditions. One of the most popular holistic therapies is holotropic breathwork.
There are peer-reviewed studies and evidence which shows that holotropic breathwork has significant benefits to different conditions and mental health issues which leads to:
- Positive self-awareness changes
- More positive outlook in life
- Found answers to their existential life issues
- Increased self-awaraness and spiritual awareness
- Decreased negative thoughts
- Manage trauma in people with post traumatic stress disorder
- Reduced death anxiety and improve self-esteem
Some people also claim that holotropic breathwork can help to heal physical ailments, such as chronic pain and respiratory problems.
Is Rapid Breathing Safe?
Holotropic breathwork reported no adverse reactions, therefore, it is considered a low-risk therapy.
There is no question that this breathing practice can have some benefits – which includes increased energy levels and improved mental clarity – however, there are also some risks associated with this technique.
It is best to take precautions and consult with professionals before trying this therapy especially if you have existing health conditions such as:
- High blood pressure
- History of panic attacks and psychosis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Retinal detachment
- Family history of aneurysm
- Recent injury
- Pregnant women
Holotropic breathwork sessions are a powerful way to explore the subconscious mind and can provide insight into issues that are causing problems and distress in someone’s life.
The experience can be overwhelming for some people, so it is important to be prepared for what might happen. Do not perform this technique all by yourself and make sure that the session is conducted in a safe, comfortable place with a qualified practitioner.
Always remember to consider your safety first!
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